Category Archives: Education

Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year: October 20, 2017


October 11th of last week was Oregon’s official teacher in-service day. In our school district, the day is unofficial, in that it’s no longer a paid work day. Somehow during negotiations that took place more than a decade ago now, the paid in-service day was bargained away in exchange for some other mysterious but beneficial thing. We still have the day off, but my sense is that most of the teachers in my school, and in my district, are not in-servicing themselves. It’s a three-day weekend, for crying out loud.

I got my haircut on teacher in-service day. And I shopped for new music.

But here I am, a week later, at Islandwood on Bainbridge Island with the Center for Courage and Renewal, on retreat for four days, taking two professional leave days and soul-sacrificing an entire weekend, officially in-servicing myself in the mysterious ways of what has come to be called by all its practitioners: Courage Work.

The work, inspired by the writer Parker J. Palmer and his book The Courage to Teach, began as a program for the professional and personal renewal of teachers. Over the last 15 years or so, the philosophies and strategies of that work have expanded exponentially and now include other professional groups: people in leadership roles, clergy, mental health professionals, health care professionals, etc.

So, I have joined 33 strangers here on this island, 29 participants and a leadership team of 4 facilitators, coming from all over the country, from Canada and from England, to delve deeper into this practice and to begin exploring the idea and possibility of moving into this work on a professional level. The Gateway Retreat, as this one is named, is designed specifically for people who have some significant experience already with Courage Work and who are thinking about a training program to become facilitators. That would be me. I am one of those people.

It is notoriously difficult to quickly describe to someone what it is exactly that we do here. For teachers, it’s not about classroom practice (but it could be), it’s not about raising test scores (but it could be), it’s not about curriculum development (but it could be), it’s not about professional relationships (but it could be). You get the picture. For a participant at a retreat of this kind, it is ABOUT whatever you need it to be about. Right now, you’re not thinking about teaching, instead, you’ve just put one of your parents in a nursing home; or you’re going through a divorce; or you’re choosing a subject for your next painting; or you find yourself unable to paint at all. Your life stuff becomes central—because your life stuff cannot help but influence and color and shape your profession and your work in that profession. Primarily, this retreat is about YOU and the way in which your identity intersects with your life’s work: the coming together of soul and role. Yes, we’re doing soul work. Sssshh. It’s a solitary endeavor—but here it absolutely requires community. We’re not all off gazing at our shoes. We are looking into mirrors. We are listening deeply. We are creating what is called Circles of Trust.

And the result? The magic word here is discernment. I find swirling around this work a number of other magic words as well: Clarity. Consciousness. Integrity. Authenticity. Silence. Storytelling. Solitude. Community. Paradox. And concerning these last three, my favorite and to me the most important paradox of Courage Work: that only in community can we find true solitude—but it has to be a community that values and nurtures that solitude, that welcomes and invites the soul. Most of our communities don’t do this. They need to. They must. So much depends upon it. This, I’ve found, again and again since I first came to it in 2000, is a good place to start.

We were thinking about the word SOUL this morning, and reflecting on Parker Palmer’s metaphor that the soul is like a wild animal: it’s strong, it’s mysterious, it’s resourceful, its orientation is always toward survival—but if you want to see it, you don’t run through the forest shouting. You’ve got to be quiet. You’ve got to be respectful. And in one of these moments, two deer came right up to the windows of our meeting place. They were massive and beautiful and they looked into our windows to say hey, and then they were gone.

We ask a lot of open, honest questions of ourselves and others. As of this writing, we’re only half way through the retreat, but here’s a sampling:

  • What are you listening for in your life right now?
  • What, if anything, do you need to let go of?
  • What signs of renewal do you see in your life?
  • What’s the difference between an ego story and a soul story? What’s a story from your life you can tell in two ways—as a story of ego and as a story of soul?
  • After reading from John Lewis’ Walking in the Wind: What is your experience in a societal storm among those most like you and across lines of difference?
  • What’s it like for you standing inside of a tragic gap, that distance between what is possible and what is a reality?

We reflect, in writing or in silence. We make art. We read poems together—not to study, as one would do in an English class, but to explore as what we call “a third thing”—some kind of language event (usually a poem but not always) that serves as a springboard for personal inquiry or reflection on the kinds of questions like those above. It’s a medium or a visiting voice between facilitator and community, a third thing, a tool to elicit deep inquiry from deep places. This is no place for a formalist critic, an English teacher habit that I find easy to jettison in this space.

While in session, we don’t talk to each other. We don’t discuss. There’s no give-or-take, back-and-forth. The impulse to argue or connect or add to or comment on is in perpetual check. Instead, we speak into the circle and listen carefully. In this way, it is unlike the kind of talk we do everywhere else in the world and especially in academics. In this way, each voice has a space, each voice is heard, each voice is welcome. And silences are intentional and weighty, never uncomfortable.

Saturday, we will prepare for Clearness Committees, a central component of a Courage Retreat in which five or six individuals help a single individual toward discernment on a problem or issue by doing nothing but asking honest, open questions for a full two and a half hours. A potentially life/mind altering experience and gift for both the individual with the issue and the people lucky enough to be able to share this deeply in someone else’s soul story.

This, in a nutshell, has been an attempt to describe what it is exactly that we do here.

Here are my central questions for this weekend:

How can I bring this back into my school community?

Is this truly my calling now?

And to answer your lingering question (perhaps) about how this work is possible for a room full of strangers, I call your attention to exhibits A and B: The touchstones of The Circle of Trust and The Five Habits of Heart. Good night and take care.

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Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year: October 11, 2017

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Panic at the Disco, I Mean, Schoolhouse

The year is cooking right along, cooking so vigorously along, in fact, that this is only my second entry in this new series I’m calling a Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year. Yes, the year is cooking right along, interrupted briefly on only two occasions and constantly punctuated by a third. We took a brief respite for an hour and a half a couple of weeks ago for a bomb threat evacuation, today, we administered the PSAT to all our sophomores, and this fall, we have experienced the phenomena of a missing English teacher. The three events are unrelated, but worth noting together in this moment because . . . well, because I’m finding an opportunity to breathe and reflect just now for the first time in more than a month, and because these three items bubble to the surface of my teacher brain first, followed closely by the grading and planning I still need to do for tomorrow.

Yeah, we had a bomb threat. At first, we thought it was a false alarm, having done a lock-down/lock-out drill the day before and having already experienced the obligatory monthly fire drill, but as they evacuated us, told us to keep moving away from the building almost all the way up the hill to the road, and then redirected us back around the school and into the grandstands at the football field around the police vehicles already in the lot, we realized that this was no accident and it was no drill. It started to rain. We were outside for about an hour in the rain. A few kids were rattled by the experience, but not many. Teachers and administrators seemed pretty chill. They pumped music into the grandstands inspiring a spontaneous dance party while we waited. It appeared that most kids were having a great time not being in their classes. And from the photos it looks like teachers were none the worse for wear either. Turns out, no bomb. No danger. We all piled back inside the schoolhouse to resume the teaching and learning. On that same day, I acquired a gift to my classroom:

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The Harvard Classics, Five-Foot Shelf of Books, all 50 volumes, pristinely preserved and well cared for, late edition, circa 1965. Now I have Cicero, Plato, Pliny the Elder, The Imitation of Christ, and the complete poems of Robert Burns in my classroom library! Now that’s da bomb. Sorry. Couldn’t help myself. There has been no news in the last couple of weeks about whether or not they caught the prankster, not the one who gifted me the books but the one who called in the bomb threat that precipitated the arrival of my books.

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These Teachers Are Also Freaked Out

Today, things came to a screeching halt one more time as we administered the PSAT to every sophomore in our school who was brave enough to show up. Most of them were brave enough, I’d say. In the group of 25 I helped to proctor, only 3 were absent. Last year on this day or a day or two before, some fool accidentally delivered test booklets too early, thus, breaking the rules of the test, thus, getting the entire school suspended or prohibited from administering the test. I wrote a poem about that last year. We redeemed ourselves this year, though, as no rules were broken and it appears the testing went off without a hitch. I am aware of no hitches.

Standardized tests. I hate them. Generally speaking, I’m against them, but as I am a kind of “arm of the state,” I must play along, and I play along so far as to encourage kids to attend, and I say, to those for whom these kinds of things matter, that the more opportunities they get to take the practice (studies show), the better they will do when the real one comes around: hence, the state of Oregon spending $$$$$$$ to make sure all sophomores in the state get this opportunity. It’s kind of an icky feeling, but at least I’m not lying.

And finally, at the end of an English Department meeting held in the very last hour of the day to talk about course options for seniors who currently, as it appears to most of us, lack options, we long at last had a conversation about an elephant that’s been in the room with us from the very first day of our teacher preparation week before the first day of school. One of our colleagues had gone missing.

No, he’s not a missing person, per se; he was not a victim of foul play; he just didn’t show up for work. Most of us know practically nothing except for that there was some kind of conflict that needed resolution. Almost completely in the dark, we were. We do know that finally, after a long month of a substitute and then a week and a half of a substitute for the substitute, our admin team was finally able to hire a new English teacher. She will join us on Monday and there will be much rejoicing. But at the end of this meeting, one of my dear, esteemed colleagues said, Can we have some closure here about this disappearing teacher? And so we spontaneously had some closure. We vented. We celebrated. We shared a memory or two, some fond, some not so much. We realized how much history we shared with this guy and with each other. There was some love in the room. We promised to have a drink later as a goodbye ritual for our teacher colleague who has disappeared. What a long, strange trip it’s been: month two of an English teacher’s penultimate year.

 

 

 

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Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year: August 29, 2017

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One of my favorite words in the English language is the word “penultimate.” It’s a great word. And this school year I will likely overuse it. Consider yourself forewarned.

Today began the (sort of) first day of the (maybe) penultimate school year of my teaching career. I say “sort of” in light of the fact that this typical first day for teachers (the week before students arrive) was preceded by one full day of staff development the week before, and then almost three days of professional development the week before that. So today was “sort of” my first day back after this exceedingly short summer, shortened by snow day make-ups on the front end and lots of bonus development on the other end. And I say “maybe” penultimate because it probably is but may not be; hence, the ambiguity.

But let me first tell you a little bit about how this day began, and you’ll have to help me to believe that it’s indicative of nothing, because it was, sorry to say, a shitty first day, or at least, a shitty beginning to a first day.

To wit: I have made a personal commitment to bicycle commute as much as I can this year without sacrificing my morning meditation ritual. To facilitate that new commitment I set my alarm clock a whole 20 minutes earlier from where it has been set for as many years as I can remember (2), and I sprung out of bed this morning to enthusiastically meet my new commitment. But when I got downstairs I could first smell and then I saw the horrendous mess our old dog made in the middle of the night–all over the hardwood floors.  Needless to say, I skipped morning meditation. Instead, I cleaned up runny dog shit and mopped floors while cursing.

I made it out the door on time and I did manage to climb on top of the bicycle. I didn’t bike nearly as much this summer as I wanted to. The ride up those two hills was kind of painful. Luckily, and for this reason NOT bicycle commuting is pretty much inexcusable, it’s only about a ten minute ride to work. Mercy of mercies.

I am happy to report that there was no shit to clean up at the school house, so the day could only improve. And mostly, it did. Here’s a list.

  • We met nine new teachers to our building this morning. I think it’s been ten years since we brought on as many new teachers. We had some fun watching one of our administrators play Jimmy Fallon’s Would You Rather game with the newbies.
  • Our principal reviewed for us the various driving forces of our work, namely, the the vision, the mission, the WHY, the HOW, and the WHAT. She told us an interesting story about growing up in Alaska, the point of which, I think, was to illustrate to us how she arrived at her own personal WHY for the work that she does, and how that manifests itself in her commitment to us and to students. It was one of the few times she has ever spoken about her life in this kind of public way. I appreciated that.
  • Another one of our administrators brought us (and all of the new kids) up to speed about why the NIKE corporation is helping us and how. There was the grant. There was the implementation of a thing called AVID. There was a rebranding and new art that turned an ominous armored horseman wielding a lance and charging forward into battle into the more protective metaphor of a simple shield, using the now ubiquitous solidarity slogan of I AM before the abbreviation of our school name. It’s clear now why they preferred the abbreviation to the full deal. As we are named after a dude and not a place, it’s easier perhaps for everyone to identify as RP. I am RP. I am not, necessarily, figuratively or literally, a dude named Rex Putnam.
  • And finally, our Jimmy Fallon administrator came back on to lead us into a deep discussion of what is perceived by our leadership and most of the teachers in the building as one of our biggest problems as a school: student absenteeism. How does it affect us, as teachers? How does it impact student success? Why does it occur? What causes it? What can we do about it? All worthwhile points for discussion and inquiry. No closure possible. No closure expected. All of us are likely frustrated by a general sense about this serious problem that we lack agency to make a difference. Too many variables out of our control. We have our classrooms, our spaces, our attitudes, the way that we express to our charges that we want them there, that we will do our best for them, that we care about their lives.
  • And then back to our rooms for a half day of individual preparation. For me, that meant getting my computer back, getting my speakers hooked up, listening to music, cleaning, moving the tables and chairs into place after getting them unstuck from the freshly and beautifully waxed floors, looking at a syllabus or two, recycling some old crap, having a little lunch with a couple of colleagues, helping my teacher friend across the hall adjust her crazy desk, learning about the Hood to Coast relay race from another teacher friend, uncovering the mysteries of two missing English teachers (one totally explicable and the other totally not), and then finally, getting back on my bicycle for a ride home in 100 degree heat. I’m not joking about that. It was 100 degrees out.

I will call that a day.

The first day. Sort of.

Of the penultimate school year of my teaching career. Maybe.

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Educational Fantasy #3: Two Teachers in Every Classroom

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In 1984 and 1992, respectively, Ted Sizer, in his seminal works Horace’s Compromise and Horace’s School, argued that there was such a thing in a teacher’s class load as an optimal number of students for educational gains and teacher effectiveness. That number was 75. That’s right. 75 students per teacher. In those days, early in my career, English teachers in my district were contractually limited to 125. I must say that 125 was almost good enough. I felt I knew my students relatively well and that I had the time, the energy, and the pedagogical freedom to serve each of them well. Fast forward into the 21st century after a series of defeating budget crises and renegotiated contracts. In this year, my most humane year in a decade, perhaps, I have approximately 150 students in my charge. Last year, that number was closer to 200. This year, I know that many of my colleagues are close to (or at) this incomprehensible, impossible number. 200.

I don’t know, honestly, how I made it through the last school year. Oh, that’s right. I almost didn’t. And as I reflect on the relative ease of this year comparatively, I can think of only three significant factors: 1). I have two preparations this year; last year I had three. 2). I have 150 students and not 200. 3). I have an enthusiastic and effective student intern. When a teacher has a intern (formerly known as a student-teacher), and that intern is competent, one of the gifts of providing an opportunity for an up and coming new teacher is that when spring rolls around, and there has been sufficient support and coaching throughout the year, it’s time for the mentor teacher to get out of the way.

As a result, while my intern is teaching, I am writing this.

In most every case in American public schools, teachers fly solo in the classroom. Special education teachers may have instructional assistants. Grade school teachers may have volunteers from the community, but for the most part, middle school and high school teachers are independent contractors. True team-teaching, a buzzword of the last decade or two, is a rare bird. While they may collaborate with colleagues now more often than they did a decade ago, this essential fact has not changed: when the bell rings and class begins, teachers will find themselves alone in a room with 30 to 35 teenagers. The only reason I am not right this minute in the classroom with my intern (besides the fact that I am writing this) is that I think it’s important that he is comfortable with this reality and that he for a while is solely responsible for the climate, the logistics of daily classroom planning and implementation, and assessment. So, even as I am NOT doing it while I could conceivably do it, I am about to make this recommendation in the 3rd installment of my educational fantasy, perfect world, pie in the sky, utopian wish list:

Every high school academic classroom should be planned, taught, facilitated, and assessed by two cooperating teachers.

First of all, I think teachers have been independent contractors for far too long. Closing one’s door and doing your own thing are no longer (have never been) viable strategies. Collaboration and cooperation, sharing with another human being the trials and tribulations, the celebrations and victories, the strategies and complexities of an academic classroom should be the norm. The benefits of collaboration are vast–not the least of which, I believe, given that the two individuals in the room work well together and are both qualified and caring, would be a huge, radical, profound increase in student achievement and success. You want to eliminate or drastically reduce drop-outs? Add more teachers. You want to ensure students get the kind of attention they need to realize their fullest academic potential? Add more teachers. You want students to have more substantive feedback and individualized attention? Add more teachers. You want a stronger and more humanizing social structure that may not be present at home? Add more teachers. On this last bit, let’s face it, as the schools are shouldered with more and more social responsibility, if that’s going to be the reality, let’s face that head on: add more teachers.

But how will it be paid for? You know what? That’s not my problem or area of expertise. As soon as our communities, our civil servants, and our politicians (probably in that order) understand that investment in education is a non-negotiable, there will be money to pay for it. We could likely sacrifice a few bombs and planes and tanks here and there and fund the thing three times over. Not properly funding education has always struck me as a catastrophic failure of imagination–and morally reprehensible. I understand it’s a job that is beyond our current class of clowns, so perhaps the first order of business is to vote out these goofballs so that we can get down to business.

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Educational Fantasy #2: Real and Effective Interventions and Alternatives for Students Who Do Not Function Well in School

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Public schools take all comers, don’t they? And that’s as it should be. Those of us who support and desire a healthy public school system believe that this is a fundamental principle that makes a democracy viable, that all our citizens deserve equal access to an educational experience that will grow them into literate, responsible, thinking, productive, engaged individuals who will realize their fullest potential. We know the reality is far from the ideal, and perhaps the most incessant and visceral dilemma teachers face on a day to day basis is that group of students who, for whatever reason, resist our efforts to provide for them this thing we believe is so essential. Our issues are rarely ever with students who are motivated to do their best, and we have huge love for those students of ours who struggle with skills and yet work hard, sometimes harder than any other kid, and despite great obstacles, succeed. No, our issues are with kids who are openly and explicitly defiant and resistant to schooling, who devalue learning, who champion stupidity or childishness, who disrespect benevolent authority, who disrespect their classmates, who cynically reject any understanding about how education could possibly be in their favor, who create disruption for others and deliberately poison classroom communities with their trolling behaviors. These kids make teaching and learning less joyful, more difficult, and sometimes impossible.

We have a moral obligation to educate them, of course. As we understand that their recalcitrance often comes from some deep suffering, we also have a moral obligation to care for them, and, as difficult as it is sometimes, to feel compassion for them. But here’s a Newsflash: teachers are not saints. It’s impossible to educate someone who doesn’t want to be educated, and it’s really difficult to love someone who is fighting you, preventing you from doing your work, sabotaging your intentions, making your sacred space unsafe.

More and more I have come to believe that the traditional classroom, no matter how progressive and inclusive, is not the correct place for these students. The title of this piece suggests that I will have a handful of suggestions to create effective interventions and alternatives for students who do not function well in school. I’ve got nothing. Nada. I only know that in a perfect world, in my educational utopia, these interventions and alternatives would exist. In this educational fantasy, all of my students, every last one of them, at the very least, would understand the importance of education and would be ready and willing to do intellectual, academic work with energy, integrity and respect. Meanwhile, in this fantasy, there is some program that provides students who are not ready or willing with some other thing that, 1. meets their academic needs, 2. teaches them how to be human and humane, 3. gives them an outlet for the release of energy usually expended in disrupting a traditional classroom, and 4. gives them some occupational/vocational skill, a skill that could be used to make things, build stuff, design, create, or fix. And in this program, whenever they decide that they want to join me in the appreciation and understanding of Shakespeare, they are welcome to come back to my classroom.

Honestly, I lack perspective. I’ve taught English at the same high school my entire career. I know there are likely programs in place around the country that work, that have developed strategies for dealing with at-risk kids, but I also know intuitively and anecdotally that these profound and effective strategies are not widely practiced, do not find their way into every nook and cranny of the vast public school system in this country–for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that strategies to help at-risk kids, if they are in place at all, are likely specific and tailored to the districts and communities that implement them; there seems to be no sure-fire way to make certain effective programs are implemented elsewhere, anywhere else, everywhere.

My district has an alternative school. I’m embarrassed to say this, but I don’t know what they do there. I know that some of the kids I’ve described end up there and some of the ones I currently have in my classes talk about wanting to go there. I don’t know why. Students cannot tell me why outside of saying that they think it will be better for them. They can’t say what they mean by that. I doubt very much that our alternative school has the capacity to welcome all students who need its services. And I am even unsure of the process by which students are selected for such an alternative. I have no reason to doubt the effectiveness of this program, but I also have no reason to celebrate. Is this alternative school successful? And by what standard? Despite the fact that I can’t answer these questions, I am thankful for it, am curious about it, and am hoping that maybe they could take on about a half a dozen of my freshmen boys.

And if the alternative school doesn’t work or can’t expand, what might possibly work as an alternative to the alternative school? Educational Fantasy #3: Two Teachers in Every Classroom.

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Educational Fantasy #1: The Gradeless Classroom

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This spring I have the good fortune of having a competent and enthusiastic teacher intern who is taking responsibility for a number of my classes. It has afforded me some time: some time to do especially good work for the students that remain solely my responsibility, some time to write a poem or two or thirty, some time to get my student growth goals done nearly a month before they are officially due, and some time to THINK, reflect, cogitate. This morning, for example, I thought to myself, as I remembered how many blog entries I have written about the things that are not right about public education, why don’t I, instead, write a series of entries describing fantasies I have regarding education in its best pie in the sky kind of light. In other words, why don’t I do a thought experiment: if things were perfect in the land of public education, how would things look, according to me, that is, and some of my friends? I don’t promise that this series will be especially academic or super serious or practical, but I hope at the very least it will be honest.

It is likely that much of what I propose will seem impossible to some. That’s okay. That would not surprise me. We are all creatures of habit and habits in the realm of educational practice and policy, as we have seen, die hard. But what would have become of us if people did not dream the impossible? See? Some of that shit actually got done. So here we go with Educational Fantasy #1.

I’ve written about this before at length, but it’s worth repeating in the super short formGrades suck. Despite the fact that I have graded students my entire career and continue to do so and even sometimes argue with myself and others about the validity of such antics, I still believe in my heart and soul that grades suck. So my first wish for an educational utopia is the gradeless classroom.

Again, don’t take my word for it. Read about it. Look it up. The research will tell you (at least some of it), (at least the research that I prefer), that grades create anxiety, that grades do not accurately measure, and that grades do not motivate.

What should motivate? Learning. Okay, how do you motivate kids to learn for learning’s sake and not for a grade? Well, if you eliminate grades, what’s left? Learning. Or no school. Most of us would prefer the former to the latter for our young people. Young people may have a different opinion.

I have had several experiences in my life as a student in a gradeless classroom, and you have probably had some as well, and maybe your kids have had some, even now. Let me tell you about a few of these.

Elementary School.  That’s right, at least in my experience as a little tike, I do not remember bringing home letter grades. My son, in his first 6 years of public schooling, has never brought home a letter grade. Don’t get me wrong, elementary school kids are measured, but they are not graded. Instead, teachers report progress toward certain standards or expectations for which kids are something like “in progress,” “meeting,” or “exceeding.” Did we learn stuff in grade school? I think we did. Were we, for the most part, motivated and relatively happy with school? I remember that we were. My son, except for a moment now and again where he complains about a “mean” adult or some level of grade school ennui, is, generally speaking, a pretty happy camper. And he’s learning gobs.

As far as I can tell, grades are introduced to young people in Middle School and continue onward forever and ever. Something wicked this way comes, but I don’t want to talk about that now. Pie in the sky, remember?

My second experience in a gradeless classroom was as an undergraduate at Lewis and Clark College. I took Modern English Literature from the late, great Vern Rutsala. The course was offered pass/no pass, an unusual move for a professor to take during that time, I think. I worked hard. I learned a lot. I read and discussed great books. I passed! It made no difference to me whatsoever that I did not receive a grade. It had no bearing on my perceptions of the value of the class or the rigor of the work, and it had no effect on the level of energy I exerted or invested in studying.

Most profoundly, perhaps, I was accepted, I enrolled, and I completed a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Warren Wilson College, the most significant educational experience of my life-time thus far, without ever reporting or receiving a single grade.

And continuing through adulthood and professional life, I have taken countless courses and workshops and attended conferences taught or presented by all sorts of people and institutions, none of which attempted to give me a letter.

In a perfect world, middle school and high school and college students would not be graded in their classes. They would pass or not pass based on evidence of their learning, learning that is individually appropriate and growth oriented. Did the student learn? Did the little cherub grow? Can he move to the next phase or level of difficulty?

And if he didn’t or can’t? Educational Fantasy #2: Real and Effective Interventions and Alternatives for Students Who Do Not Function Well in School.

 

 

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Finding My Way Back to Courage

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At the turn of the new year in 2016, I resolved to live more mindfully, and in January I joined a local meditation group. A year and some months later, the group still meets every other week, is facilitated by a super competent, compassionate and knowledgeable guy who earns his living as a hypnotherapist. We spend an hour and a half together in silent meditation, in guided meditation, in other meditative exercises and activities, and in discussion over our experiences together.

I enjoy my time with this group very much and in a year’s span I’ve only missed a handful of our meetings. It has inspired me to keep up my own private and daily meditation practice, it has given me some tools for cooling the fires, for dealing constructively with the common stresses of work and family life, for living more reflectively, and subsequently, it has been a boon for that 2016 resolution to work on more mindful living, a resolution that has had more staying power than any I’ve ever set for myself.

I realize, though, that I had another motive for seeking out a meditation group, a sangha, if you will, to enhance and grow my own spiritual experience. I find myself hearkening back and trying to find a way to recreate or recapture a much earlier and more formative experience with mindfulness practice. The search began for me in 1999, the year I embarked on a long relationship and several extended experiences with a program called The Courage To Teach, an educational opportunity based on the work of writer, educator, and peace activist Parker Palmer.

I had read Parker Palmer’s book and had seen him speak once almost a year before, but The Courage To Teach program was news to me several months later, billed as a series of retreats over a two year period and designed as a course in “teacher renewal.” It appealed to me then, closing in on my first decade as a public high school English teacher, because I felt like I was already in dire need of renewal, that already early in my career I felt not a little bit in danger of burn-out. Renewal. There was something about that word. And there was something about another phrase associated with the program: “formation work.” Both resonated with me in a serious and palpable way. Yes, I knew I needed to renew my teacher self, and yes, there was also something inside, gestating, some kind of formation, a sense of  “becoming” something more–or rather, “becoming” into something already there, but dormant.

What followed for me was a two year series of eight Courage retreats, in the late 2000’s another round of four retreats over a single year, and between that first experience and the second, and between the second and this present moment, a smattering, maybe three or four more individual weekend retreats. I have told colleagues and friends of mine that this work, my initial introduction to it and my continual revisitation of it, has been the single most impactful, meaningful, influential, and enriching experience I have ever had, rivaled perhaps only by the heady years during my work toward an MFA in creative writing.

My Courage colleagues and I often joked about the difficulty of describing to someone “on the outside” exactly what it was one “did” at a Courage To Teach retreat. At the center, perhaps, was a fascinating and invigorating paradox, that we were together in community and simultaneously in solitude. Our facilitators gave us poems or short essays to read; they gave us prompts for writing, meditating, thinking, drawing, finger-painting; they asked us questions for conversations in small group or partnerships; they told us to go on walks outside; they gave us two hour breaks during which we were asked to be completely silent, and they brought us together on the eve of our last morning together for Circles of Trust: the Clearness Committee, the centerpiece of the two day retreat. I could go on about any of these listed activities, but to make things snappy I’ll just enlarge this paradox a bit by saying that the goal of all of this work was not academic conversation, was not classroom pedagogy, was not teacher strategies, but rather, in community to invite the individual soul and “inner teacher” of each member of the group. We didn’t discuss things, but we spoke into the circle and were heard. There was almost a religious principle that commentary on what someone else might share was verboten–alongside a serious commitment to confidentiality. The ethos of the work spiraled around a set of community expectations or “touchstones” that worked so powerfully over the proceedings, they are worth listing here. They are repeated and discussed at the beginning of every retreat and often referred to throughout the process. The touchstones ask you to:

  • Come with 100% of your self
  • Presume welcome and extend welcome
  • Believe that it is possible to leave more refreshed than when you arrived
  • Know that there is always invitation, never demand
  • Avoid fixing–no fixing
  • Practice openness and learn from others
  • Speak for your self; use “I” statements
  • Turn to inquiry when the going gets tough
  • Listen to the silence
  • Observe confidentiality

Another complete blog essay could be written about each of the preceding touchstones, but I’ll just say here that these particular norms had such a powerful and positive impact on the way these groups were together, that in as many experiences as I had with this process and with as many different groups of people, almost all of whom were essentially strangers to me, I never, not once, had a negative experience, not even a single moment when I felt anything other than completely safe and taken care of.

It was not, never was, a class or a workshop about “meditation,” per se, but everything about it was meditative, reflective, truth-seeking, and most importantly, respectful and inviting of silence. This is where I learned to meditate. So in the absence of around-the-calendar opportunities for Courage retreats, I joined a meditation group, hoping, perhaps, to be able to recreate or participate in something somewhat remotely like the retreat experience inspired by the work of Parker Palmer.

My experience in a meditation group over the last year and some months comes close. I’m not sure that’s correct. It does its job to create some similar conditions to those of a Courage retreat; also, it’s clearly beneficial on its own as simply another avenue into the neighborhood of raising consciousness, awareness, and equanimity. But I realize now, as I was looking to my meditation group as a  way to recapture the benefits of an earlier experience, that there might not exist an adequate substitute. There are elements to my Courage experiences that might possibly only emerge from a Courage experience. And this was a question often asked in the closing circle of a retreat: how do we sustain this work? How do we embody or continue these practices? How can this influence who I am in the world, with my family, with my students? Some religious people find this in their churches. Non-religious people like myself, who nevertheless hunger for spiritual growth experiences, find it in other places if they are lucky. For now, I’m in a meditation group. In April, I’ll write a poem every day. I’m rereading Palmer’s The Hidden Wholeness. I am thinking seriously about training to be a facilitator of this important, transformational work. Slowly but surely, I am finding my way back to courage.

http://www.couragerenewal.org/courage-to-teach/

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